Hidden Story

“Thank you for your service to our country!”

“Thank you for your service to our country!”
Circa 1940.

Sometimes in researching a story, I come across bizarre leads taking me all different directions. This happened again just recently.

It’s not like I was looking to write about a couple of WWII veterans. I was seeking specific information about a long-abandoned business near Holbrook, Arizona called, ‘Painted Desert Trading Post’. This place has mega historic significance where old Route 66 is concerned.

On February 5, 1957, a semi-truck loaded with frozen meat blew a right front tire while traveling along Route 66. Out of control, the rig careened off the highway and headed straight towards Painted Desert Trading Post.

The truck crashed into the wood and stucco structure doing considerable damage. A still attached trailer rolled over squashing a pickup truck and car. No one was seriously hurt. Newspaper articles stated that meat, ham, and bacon went flying.

Driver of the semi was a fellow named Floyd A. Austin. Intuition told me to pursue Mr. Austin’s background. Sometimes an inner voice tells me to do strange things like that where my research is concerned.

Records show that 10-years prior, on December 20, 1947, Floyd Austin was involved in a similar accident with a totally different outcome.

Floyd and good friend, Army Pvt. Jess Scroggins, were hitchhiking out of Needles, California with their wife and girlfriend. Both men had recently returned from fighting in WWII.

Pvt. Scroggins was still in the military stationed at Fort Kelly, Texas. Pvt. Floyd Austin had just mustered out of the service. More than likely they were all headed home to Illinois for Christmas.

A diesel truck loaded with barrels of oil stopped and picked them up. The two girls jumped in the cab while the guys climbed onto the trailer. Being it was a tight fit back there, most likely they squeezed between the heavy metal drums.

Near the California/Arizona border at Topock, a wheel suddenly came loose sending truck and trailer tumbling off the road. Pvt. Jess Scroggins was crushed and killed instantly while Floyd Austin sustained severe head injuries. The Needles newspaper called it a ‘freak accident’.

I dug further on Floyd Austin’s background. He fully recovered from his physical injuries. Mr. Austin stayed married to Edna until his death in 1970. Floyd’s wife never remarried.

I stopped my research after finding son Floyd Austin Jr. tragically drowned at an early age in Missouri. Once again it was a freak accident. That was enough tragedy for a story I hadn’t planned on writing to begin with.

Hopefully there are family members still remembering these two veterans. I would’ve never known their names had I not been prodded to dig deeper. I’m glad I did.

There’s nothing more I can say about Pvt. Austin and Pvt. Scroggins other than,

“Thank you for your service to our country!”

“Thank you for your service to our country!”
Painted Desert Trading Post as it looks today.

Cuts like a Knife

As the years went by the once invincible cutting tool became impossible for dad to use.

Oh, the thrill of a dad carving turkey with his new Sunbeam AW-100 electric knife. (file photo)

I can’t tell you the exact day or month it happened, yet I can pinpoint things down to the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Much of what I’m about to tell you is pure speculation on my part. A good portion of this story took place many years ago.

Our family was visiting good friends, Luther & Margaret Hudspeth, in Selma, Alabama. It might’ve been Christmas, but then again, Thanksgiving is a distinct possibility; whatever the occasion, a large turkey, ham, or roast was about to be carved.

At this feast, Luther Hudspeth brought out a small box with his newly purchased electric carving knife tucked inside. I’d never heard of one and it was evident mom and dad hadn’t either. I tend to believe my folks hovered over the device oohing and awing like it was a newborn child.

When Mr. Hudspeth turned the thing on and began slicing meat with ease, most likely additional oohs and awe’s were uttered by my parents. I’m sure that was the precise moment my father decided he needed one.

The key word arising from that occasion is Sunbeam. Dad’s Craig Air Force Base pal, Sgt. Luther Hudspeth, told him he needed to get a Sunbeam, as it was the best electric carver on the market. I’m sure in pop’s way of seeing things, a utensil like that would only enhance his already well-deserved Master Carver title.

Flash ahead to the next big holiday. By this time my father had his own Sunbeam AW-100 in hand. This would’ve been its maiden voyage into freshly baked turkey.

Because the carver’s cord was not long enough to reach an electrical outlet in our small kitchen, mom grabbed an extension cord. For whatever reason, all electrical devices in early mobile homes required extension cords.

When my old man (I use those words with complete reverence) turned his magical knife on and began slicing, my mom, brother, and I stood back and watched. After a few chunks of meat dropped to the side mother couldn’t wait to ask,

“How’s it cut?”

The old man was never one to mince words. He was brief and straight to the point. Hesitating for a few seconds he spoke,

“Like a knife!”

That blunt response was representative of my father’s dry sense of humor. Mother understood his wisecracks and cackled. Evidently I didn’t see the remark as funny. Neither did my brother. The only reason I can accurately rehash this portion of history is because mother loved to tell this story.

Dad’s precious electric meat carver was kept in a special place in a bottom kitchen drawer. Jim and I were warned to keep hands off as our parents deemed the machine dangerous.

“It’ll cut a finger off before you know it!”

I had no use for the tool being somewhat afraid of it. Jim on the other hand, found it extremely handy in cutting excess plastic off airplane and car model parts. He was clever enough to place the box back in its exact spot, so that our parents would never know.

As time slid by the once invincible cutting tool became impossible to use. The blades were so dull they wouldn’t cut through even the tenderest of meat. My father tried sharpening both serrated blades with zero success. He blamed this failure on them being made with low-quality steel.

Jim and I were the only ones knowing the true reason. My brother had placed both blades over a stove burner to help remove imbedded plastic. Years later we learned that doing so took the hardness out of metal.

After perhaps a three-year lifespan this once invaluable knife was tossed in the trash. Dad returned to using his always dependable wood-handle model.

Several years ago my wife decided we needed an electric carving knife. Without asking what I thought of the idea she came home one day with a rechargeable Sunbeam. I had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing.

At Thanksgiving, Joleen and the kids stood around watching me dissect a ham. After a few pieces rolled to the side of a serving plate Joleen didn’t hesitate in asking,

“How’s it cut?”

Remembering dad’s crass reply to this very question, I decided to add a little panache’ to my answer. Shutting the knife off while gazing down at the meat, I attempted to come across as a wise person searching precisely for the right words. With unrehearsed choreography I paused at least 15 seconds before replying,

“Like a knife!

Gunnar and Miranda cracked up while Joleen’s face went blank. She quickly saw through the wiseguy humor and smacked me. It was obvious on that Thanksgiving Day – my children Gunnar and Miranda had developed the same dry sense of humor I’d inherited from dad.

Joleen’s electric carver is seldom used these days. During holidays we opt for spiral cut hams instead of cumbersome turkeys or roasts. Just recently I put the Sunbeam to good use in slicing up pieces of foam for an upholstery job. The handy kitchen tool saved precious time in my not having to use scissors. Several pieces of thick foam were cut into squares with perfection.

Not only did I inherit a unique sense of humor from my father, but I picked up his Master Carver skills as well!

1950’s Sunbeam AW-100

Fire Island Refugees

I was intrigued by a place called Fire Island. To me it sounded like some mysterious location from a pirate movie.

Fire Island Air Force Station – Fire Island, Alaska (circa 1963)

In my younger days I did my share of stupid things like most adolescent boys. Some stunts I’ll admit to while others will remain secret.

Slithering like a snake through a culvert underneath Muldoon Road in Anchorage, Alaska being one bonehead move. I wasn’t the first or last kid to do so. Several of my friends completed the claustrophobic mission with no problem.

Looking back some 54 years later, I think Jeff Cloud made the journey before anyone. He generally took the lead on attempting dangerous things. Muldoon Road during that time was two-lanes. This particular culvert was near 30-feet in length.

“Piece of cake!”, boasted one pal after exiting the tube.

Several years later I heard tale of another kid trying the stunt and getting stuck. Only through assistance of the Anchorage Fire Department was he safely extracted. After that incident metal grates were placed on both ends to dissuade juvenile foolishness. When Muldoon Road was widened to four-lanes the lone culvert was removed.

Fireworks in Anchorage were available at several makeshift stands. My brother and I lived less than two blocks from one of the largest dealers. It was there that we purchased M-80 firecrackers for a quarter a piece. An M-80 is oftentimes equated to having the power of a quarter-stick of dynamite. I believe the comparison is overly exaggerated. They were powerful enough to take fingers off.

Many kids including myself found M-80’s the perfect propellant for homemade mortars. I’d take a piece of pipe, then hammer a good portion of it into the ground. A lit M-80 would be dropped in the open end with a round rock to follow. With a loud explosion the projectile would go flying completely out of sight. I always pointed my mortar into the woods so not to hit anyone. Because of misuse including serious injuries, M-80’s were eventually banned for sale throughout the country.

Going back to my first year in Anchorage (1966) I was intrigued by a place called Fire Island. To me it sounded like some mysterious location from a pirate movie. The small clump of ground rose out of Cook Inlet approximately 3 ½ miles west of the city. It was originally called Nutul’l’iy by Dena’ina Indians. They had a village there for many years there until an epidemic forced all residents to leave.

In 1794, Captain Cook and his band of explorers renamed it Currant Island, and then Turnagain Island. The Russians changed things to Mushuklhi Island in 1847. That namesake lasted until the U.S. began calling it Fire Island in 1895. The seemingly sinister title seems to have stuck.

During WWII, soldiers were stationed on the island to prevent Japanese submarine attacks on Anchorage. The military had a facility called Fire Island Air Force Station there from 1951 – 1969. During that time the grounds were off limits to civilians unless they had proper security clearance.

Rumors circulated throughout town about WWII Jeeps abandoned on Fire Island along with other wartime equipment. I desperately wanted to search for that treasure. My dream eventually became somewhat of a reality.

In the late 1960’s, I walked to Fire Island with my brother Jim, Rod Sanborn, and Jeff Thimsen. We were told the feat was possible by an old timer as long as you moved quickly. It had to be done at the lowest possible tide at a breakneck pace. Even so, this person told us it was a dangerous trek if we didn’t time things just right.

Many folks have biked or ridden to Fire Island since then with no problem. A few unfortunates have drowned. Most likely those successful ones were smart enough to check tide schedules before starting. We didn’t do such, electing to use a roll the dice method instead. It was a spur of the moment decision for us to even go.

We had no problem hiking to the island. On the return leg the tide quickly came in drenching us with freezing water. We were fortunate to survive. None of us realized at that time the seriousness of our blunder.

I was never satisfied in having touched Fire Island’s shore and then promptly leaving. A burning desire had me still wanting to explore the place. That opportunity came unexpectedly 29 years later.

In 1998, Doug Harvey, Jeff Thimsen, and I decided to ride personal watercraft (PWC) from the Port of Anchorage to Kenai. Our plan was to spend the night on a Kenai beach and then return home the following day.

We made it just beyond Fire Island when gale force winds started blowing out of Bear Valley. We were hit with gusts 70 miles per hour and higher. At the same time, a powerful tide came roaring in with incredible fury. The waters of Cook Inlet resembled a giant muddy vortex. It was akin to flushed water inside a humongous toilet.

Deciding it best to turn around, we elected to hit the shore of Fire Island first. It appeared my long awaited exploration of the infamous locale was about to happen.

We secured our craft and quickly found a place to eat lunch. Doug saw two people farther down the beach. It looked as though they were salmon fishing with nets. The native couple paid no attention to our being there.

I wanted to search the mainland for artifacts while Jeff said I’d be wasting my time. He told me the Air Force had recently cleaned up all of the wartime junk. That news threw a blanket on my enthusiasm.

Fire Island is mostly owned by Cook Inlet Regional Corporation, while the remainder is government property. Permission is supposed to be obtained before going ashore. The last thing any of us wanted was to be arrested for trespassing. We basically ended up there by accident figuring property owners would understand.

Taking ample time to check out the surroundings, it looked no different than those ugly beaches surrounding Anchorage. Flat stones, mud, and gravel comprised the majority of shoreline. A fair amount of plastic bottles and garbage was visible.

Wanting some type of souvenir to remember the place by I quickly searched for a unique piece of driftwood. Finding none, I spotted a couple of round stones much different than all the rest. They stood out amongst flat rocks like black flies on a pumpkin pie. I carefully placed the treasure into my backpack.

The two round stones in the middle are my Fire Island refugees.


It’s been 21 years since I last touched foot there. Whenever I hear the song, “Fire Lake”, by Bob Seger, I think of Fire Island. Seger’s timeless lyrics make mention of bronzed beauties lyin’ in the sun. I seriously doubt he was referring to stones.

My Fire Island refugees have turned a nice golden brown after relocating them to sunny Arizona. Since 2010, they’ve found refuge in my backyard along with other mineralized escapees from various states.

I tend to believe the stones were lobbed to Fire Island via an M-80 powered mortar. Some ingenious kid residing on the west side of town intentionally sent them that direction. In my twisted way of seeing things, there’s no other way it could’ve happened!

Fire Island as it looked before 11 wind generators were installed.


Because he’s no longer able to work, Jim Witherspoon turned to the internet for assistance.

Jim Witherspoon is an unemployed rotary telephone repairman living in El Dorado, Kansas. An attempt at opening a convenience store in another town set him back financially, as well as physically. Because he’s no longer able to work, Jim turned to the internet for assistance.

Witherspoon discovered opinions galore. He had advice coming in from all walks of life. A farmer in Beijing, China recommended that Jim move to another country where rotary phones are still in use. That was an impossibility at this time.

Dot Mathers told Jim he should consider plastics as that’s where the world was headed. She urged him to purchase stock in her company, Plastics Unlimited. Jim deemed that offer as suspicious.

A tip that Jim thought highly of came from a fellow in Juarez, Mexico. Kim Sing told him that a person could make millions from home as an internet advice expert. For $99.00 he’d send out instructions on how to organize such a company.

Realizing that he couldn’t move from El Dorado just yet, Witherspoon coughed up the funds and mailed them off. He’s thankful that he did! Today, Jim operates a successful internet business called, “Ask Jim”. The small, one-employee company pays big dividends.

For a modest fee of $5.00, Ask Jim will give advice in all areas of life. He hands out financial advice, medical, interpersonal relationship, corporate, religious, and his specialty, legal. Jim Witherspoon pretty much covers all bases. Mr. Witherspoon will never refuse to give advice if money is sent.

Enclosed are some actual questions along with Jim’s replies:

Peggy Rainwater of Clearwater, Florida writes“I’ve been going with a fellow for two years but don’t know how to tell him it’s over. He’s a real sweet guy and I hate to break his heart. What would you suggest?”

Ask Jim“That’s a good question Peggy. Wish I had an easy answer. I suppose the simplest way is wait until he’s not home. Leave a message on the man’s telephone recorder or better yet text him. If you don’t mind could you please send me your picture?”

Bobbie Valhi of Pascagoula, Mississippi writes “Is there a proper way to ask my boss for a raise?”

Ask Jim“Do so in a threatening manner. Tell the person unless he coughs up more money you’ll begin a work slowdown. I’ve heard folks say that either works or it doesn’t. Let me know the results.”

Chance Smith of Baker, Utah writes“I have a serious medical condition and friends say I should seek a homeopathic doctor. Do you agree with them?”

Ask Jim“Homeopathic doctors are much like voodoo doctors. Personally I wouldn’t go that route, yet I see no reason why you can’t. Just make sure you have all your personal things in order!”

Howie Keller of Ruby, Texas writes“My car shakes like crazy whenever I hit 65. It feels like a wheel’s about to fall off. Any ideas on what could be wrong?”

Ask Jim“I’m no mechanic Howie. My suggestion is slow down. You’ll get much better fuel mileage. If a wheel hasn’t fallen off by now it probably won’t.”

Veronica Jacobs of Arlington, Virginia writes“I have ten-thousand-dollars that I’d like to invest. What do you recommend?”

Ask Jim“Excellent question Veronica – Ask Jim LLC is the safest place to put your money. I promise returns better than any on Wall Street. You’ll find an address to mail your check on my website.”

Peggy Lipton of Grover, New York writes“I’m not sure who to vote for in the next presidential election. What candidate do you prefer?”

Ask Jim“Peggy, I generally don’t make political recommendations, but since you paid $5.00 I’ll make an exception. A friend says to always vote for the tallest candidate and you won’t go wrong. I’d recommend you follow suit.”

Harley Downs of Tupelo, Mississippi writes – “I’m thinking about taking an out of country vacation. Do you have any countries to recommend?”

Ask Jim“Personally I’ve never been on vacation and at this point probably never will. If I had to pick a country, Persia sounds great. I hear extradition from there is non-existent.”

If you’d like to know how to become financially independent like Jim by owning your own IAC (internet advice company), send a check for $99.99 along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope to:

Jim Witherspoon

C/O El Dorado Correctional Facility

P.O. Box 311

El Dorado, Kansas 67042

El Dorado, Kansas

Lord Trapper – Bill Devine

William “Bill” Devine

My family was blessed living next door to Anchorage resident Bill Devine for 35 years.  Both our homes were located within Elm-Rich Subdivision on the north side of Muldoon.  Bill joked about this name all the time.  He’d say there are no elm trees, and most everyone’s poor in this ‘hood.   Of course he knew Elm-Rich stood for joint military bases ‘Elmendorf – Fort Richardson’.

Bill was an exceptional artist specializing in Alaska related topics; dog mushing at the top of the list.  Most folks know that artists are ‘different thinkers’ with Bill being no exception.  I say that with upmost respect, because my friend’s insight and twisted humor on various topics kept us in stitches.

During the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous sometime in the 1980’s, Bill was crowned “Lord Trapper”. He had his beard trimmed to perfection and handlebar moustache waxed just right for the competition. He easily beat out the other contestants. From that point on the name stuck. People called him “Lord Trapper” up until the end.

There was one gentleman in our neighborhood going beyond the call of duty in keeping his lawn prim & proper.  Bill referred to him as “The Inspector”.  This fellow would get down on hands and knees holding what appeared to be tweezers.  The perfectionist would individually pluck dandelions from his perfectly manicured grass.  Early in the morning he’d walk the block inspecting our yards.

Of course Bill and I had more important things to do besides tend to lawns.  Neighbor Bill said one summer morning he looked out his bedroom window seeing the man, hands on hips, shaking his head profusely.  When Bill glanced down at his grass there were yellow pedaled dandelions everywhere.  The wind was blowing that day in a northerly direction towards this person’s house.  The puffy white seedlings were beginning to take flight making their 50-yard journey to greener pastures.

“That’ll give him something to do!”, Bill quipped.

Sgt. William “Bill” Devine was a true American patriot.  He served in the U.S. Air Force in both the Korean and Vietnam War.  I recall one poignant story involving Korea.  Bill was erroneously reported as killed in action (KIA).  That was because he was the only survivor out of his squadron after being overrun by communist troops.  All men were reported lost.  It was several months later when the Devine family found he was alive.  Bill said the news hit his mother especially hard, most likely taking a few years off her life.  His parents kept this tragic letter hidden away until their deaths.  Bill’s sister now has it.

Bill talked less of his time in Vietnam.  He briefly mentioned being part of a clandestine Cambodia mission.  He parachuted in with no personal identification, assigned an M-1 folding stock carbine minus serial number.  Bill never explained a reason for going there only saying he was fortunate to come back alive.  Sgt. Devine served with one other decorated Alaskan soldier during that time.  The late and great native leader Percy Blatchford was in one of Bill’s units.  Bill told me Percy was the toughest and strongest man he’d ever met.  The two war veterans remained good pals long after their military careers ended.

It was in the Air Force where Bill’s art career blossomed.  Even though he’d shown artful ability at an early age, his commanding officer took note of the soldier’s exquisite skill in writing; calligraphy for the most part.  From that point on Bill created special letters or bulletins for the muckety-mucks as Bill liked to call officers.  

Our neighbor was a good hearted and generous person.  He gave each of our children a vintage gold coin each Christmas.  This was when the precious metal was hovering around $300.00 an ounce.  Bill candidly told Gunnar and Miranda,

“Hang on to ‘em because someday they’ll be worth millions.”

Bill had considerable knowledge regarding valuable coins, stamps, and precious metals. He told me whenever he visited a coin or stamp shop, he was like a kid in a candy store.  Over the years I observed many people take advantage of my friend.  One incident stands out in particular.

Bill designed impressive patriotic eagles for a well-known Anchorage company.  A businessman from California saw his work, claiming he could make Bill a fortune by placing the art on clothing.  This man had connections to a huge firm selling motif apparel to Wal-Mart.  Plans were made for Bill to fly to Los Angeles and present his designs to corporate types.

Bill made the journey taking along several pieces.  After the meeting he was informed they’d let him know.  He left his artwork behind for executives to scrutinize.  Several months rolled by with him hearing nothing.  One day as Bill strolled through Wal-Mart something caught his eye.  Walking over to a rack of clothing there perched on a cotton tee was one of his eagles.  Looking through the rack he spotted several more of his designs.

“I was robbed!”, he sadly told my wife Joleen.

Asking what he did after learning such Bill shrugged his shoulders and replied,

 “What could I do? It would’ve taken thousands of dollars to fight those guys!”

He went on explaining how he quickly got over the blow.

“I figured if my work was that good, it must’a been worth stealing!”

That’s how ‘Neighbor Bill’ looked at things.  He knew in the end that nobody takes worldly things with them.  Had Bill derived considerable wealth from the clothing deal most likely he would’ve given it away!

Bill was especially known for his dog mushing ties. He was best friends to legendary Joe Redington Sr. and wife Vi.  The Redington’s would sometimes spend nights with Bill whenever they were in town. He had many dog mushing celebrities’ stop by the Fern Lane house.  It wasn’t unusual to spot Susan Butcher at his door; her truck of howling huskies parked out front. 

George Attla, Dr. Roland Lombard, and other notables dropped in to have coffee.  Bill designed many Iditarod trophies throughout the years.  The much celebrated sled dog monument on 4th Avenue has Bill Devine’s name on it.  Another one of his works is the stately Joe Redington Sr. memorial in Knik.

Joe Redington Sr. monument designed by Bill Devine
Bill Devine inspired statue on 4th Avenue. Contrary to what some believe, Bill used the likeness of his beloved dog, “Knik”, in the design of this monument. Joe and Vi Redington gave Bill “Knik” as a puppy.

As the years slid by Bill’s health took a turn for the worse.  A good pal of his and mine, Dale Myers, stepped in to help.  Joleen and I did what we could by shopping for groceries or bringing over food.  When it became obvious Bill was not going to make it, Dale was appointed executor of his estate.  About a year later Bill sadly passed away.  Elm-Rich Subdivision was no longer the same.  With my mom also gone Joleen and I decided it was time to move.

We think often of Bill and all the kind things he did. ‘Dollars for Dogs’   was a recipient of Bill’s financial support.  Many veterans groups either received monetary donations or his valuable time seeking them.   The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.  was a favorite.  Almost every worthwhile charity in town garnered some type of assistance.  Bill was a behind the scenes lobbyist, making sure our son Gunnar received appointment to the Air Force Academy.

Bill wanted a portion of his estate proceeds going to the Iditarod Sled Dog Committee.  At a special meeting Dale Myers presented them a check for $124,000.00.  Several days later Dale handed Joleen and I a substantial amount of money.

“Bill wanted you guys to have it!”

It was around 1996 when I nominated Bill for ‘Neighbor of the Year’ award.  When he was announced winner I wasn’t surprised.  The man was quite humble saying others were more deserving.  I told him if there were others, I didn’t know their names.

William David Devine left this world on January 16, 2007.  If dandelions grow on the other side of life’s fence, I assume Bill’s picked a few.  I’m sure he’s put their seeds to humorous use.

On our office wall hangs a marble plaque.  Bill Devine’s signature is etched on bottom along with the date 1982.  Artwork portrays realistic portrait of a bearded miner bent over a stream. The grizzled character is holding a gold pan and nugget.  Very few people know this:  Bill penned that scene in his own image.  My neighbor claimed had he not been an artist, he would’ve become a gold miner.

“There’s gotta be more money in it!”

I can only imagine with Heaven’s streets covered in the precious metal, Bill Devine’s staked out several claims!

Batman & Robin

“Suspicious of the characters, Murray trailed both men back to a residence in Gattman, Mississippi, where he found signs of chickens recently handled.”

Sheriff Murray V. Smith on left. Deputy Sheriff Herschel C. Smith on right. Herschel is standing beside the wrecked Ford getaway car that Otis Dickie and Charlie Owens crashed. (Circa 1937)

When one thinks of a dynamic duo where crime fighting is concerned, Batman and Robin immediately come to mind. Many years ago, Lamar County, Alabama had their own legendary crusaders. Unlike the fictional heroes protecting Gotham City, Sheriff Murray Virgil Smith and Deputy Sheriff Herschel C. Smith were the real deal.

I decided to look into some of their more illustrious cases. There were plenty to choose from going through over 30 years of archived newspaper records.

Murray V. Smith began his law enforcement career it appears in 1923. Before that time he was in the military and most likely served in WWI.

Perhaps the most unusual case Sheriff Murray Smith solved was before sidekick Deputy Herschel came along. It involved of all things, stolen chickens.

A couple of  outsiders, Fred Felkins and Leonard Simpson, drove into Lamar County early one morning with near 200 of the birds in a truck. They attempted to peddle them to local farmers. The following excerpt is a word by word account taken from an October 1, 1930, The Lamar Democrat,

“Suspicious of the characters, Murray trailed both men back to a residence in Gattman, Mississippi, where he found signs of chickens recently handled.”

After a quick and through investigation it was discovered the chickens were stolen from six different farms in Caledonia, Mississippi. The chicken thieves eventually had their day in court.

Sheriff Smith, in January 1936, had to investigate a tragic hanging. A young girl of 18, Miss Laura Veal, was found by farmers hanging from a tree. With some believing that foul play was involved, Murray Smith, after investigating the scene sadly concluded that it was suicide. Over the years, Officer Smith along with his deputy had to look into several suicides in the county.

Murry’s younger nephew, Herschel Smith, started working alongside the veteran cop a few years later. During that time they flip flopped job titles a couple of times. The Lamar County sheriff position was voted for back then as it is today.

Archived newspaper accounts show Murray and Herschel Smith were well-respected officers. That explains them continuously being reelected.

On November 2, 1937, two strangers came wheeling into Vernon in a 1934 V-8 Ford Deluxe. This vehicle was akin to the one Bonnie and Clyde preferred in bank robberies because of its speed. For reasons unexplained, a fellow at the wheel lost control and crashed. Both him and his passenger were taken to a local Vernon clinic.

While Sheriff Murray Smith tended to them, Deputy Sheriff Herschel Smith poked around underneath the wrecked Ford’s seat. He located a suspicious amount of money.

Phone calls along with an investigation showed Otis Dickie and Charlie Owens had robbed The First National Bank in Huntland, Tennessee days earlier. Their fast getaway car was stolen in Russellville, Alabama. The on-the-run crooks were quickly tossed in jail, with news of their arrest spreading across the country. Both Lamar policemen were congratulated for their quick thinking.

Numerous moonshine operations in and around Lamar County were broken up by the savvy cops during their long career. One raid in 1939 netted 2500 gallons of mash. That was enough to create 1200 gallons or more of booze. Officer’s Smith & Smith succeeded over the years in pouring thousands of gallons of illegal liquor down the drain.

There are several archived newspaper articles showing where the infamous law enforcement officers solved robberies and burglaries. They were a team to be reckoned with when crooks came to town.

Sheriff Murray V. Smith retired from law enforcement in 1947. On February 8, 1950, Murray was strolling along a sidewalk near the Bank of Vernon when he dropped dead of a heart attack. His funeral was reported to have been attended by many.

Sheriff Herschel V. Smith continued in his capacity as Lamar County Sheriff. On August 8, 1951, the sheriff was helping Winston County lawmen search for a man named Taylor Peoples. Taylor was know as a violent person and had critically shot two Mississippi officers. One of them, Sheriff Clifford Peak, eventually died. Taylor People’s own family feared for their lives.

As Sheriff Smith walked through the brush, a shotgun blast rang out. Taylor Peoples had been hiding behind a bush. Herschel was hit in the chest and face by pellets. Even though unable to clearly see, Smith fired several shots back at the assailant from his service revolver. Taylor Peoples immediately dropped his shotgun and surrendered.

It seems that unfortunate incident ended Sheriff Herschel V. Smith’s career. A newspaper article right afterwards mentioned he might possibly lose an eye. A newspaper photo taken in a hospital bed showed Smith considerably bandaged up.

I found nothing about Herschel continuing to be in law enforcement after that incident.

Sheriff Herschel C. Smith died June 22, 1969. He’s buried at the Friendship Baptist Church Cemetery in Sulligent.

Batman and Robin Smith are gone, but other heroes have come along.

God bless all Lamar County Police officers and personnel continuing to fill Murray and Herschel’s shoes!

Sheriff Murray Virgil Smith.
"God bless those in law enforcement!"
Sheriff Herschel Smith’s badge. Sadly, it was sold on eBay. Notice the pink tape over last name.

Remnants of War

“I hate to see myself die!”

War between the states ended four days later on April 9, 1865.

During the American Civil War, Selma and Vernon, Alabama had one thing in common. Both towns were locations of foundries, used in the manufacture of essential war material needed by Confederate troops.

Selma’s blast furnace and smelter sat along the Alabama River. It’s referred to in most publications as the Selma Ordinance and Naval Foundry. This was a large operation, producing cannons, cannon balls, ammunition, rifle components, and the like. The facility was destroyed by Union soldiers on April 5, 1865.

The Hale & Murdock iron furnace in Vernon was constructed in 1859. A much smaller plant than that in Selma, initially it produced plow parts, horse shoes, and other farm related equipment. In 1861, production shifted to manufacturing bullet molds and cast iron products designed to help the war effort.

Remarkably, Union troops did not discover the Hale & Murdock location like it did Selma’s, sparing it from destruction. The facility continued to operate four years after the Civil War ended until finally going bankrupt in 1870.

Both the Selma and Vernon foundries were responsible for making components that killed thousands of federal troops. The precise number of deaths those items are responsible for, will of course, never be known.

Some 23 years after Vernon’s Hale & Murdock smelter shut down, one more fatality was added to the list. This one wasn’t due to an act of war. Thomas Ballinger Moore’s death was the result of a freak accident.

Mr. Moore was a much-respected farmer in Lamar County. He had a wife and several children. On July 24, 1893, he was at the abandoned smelter salvaging bricks. Most likely they came from the kiln.

Evidently some of the heavy bricks had sunk into mud. The old foundry location is close to Yellow Creek which is prone to flooding. Digging a trench to retrieve his treasures, Moore was standing near six-feet in the hole when a bank of dirt collapsed on top of him.

One of Thomas’s young sons, along with another boy, rushed over to brush dirt away from his face. Mr. Moore was solidly encased up to his neck. The children ran for help.

It took several men to extract Thomas from his unintended grave. He was upbeat during the whole episode, telling rescuers,

“I hate to see myself die!”

When they finally got him out there was no noticeable external injuries. It appeared he’d be okay.

Unfortunately, serious internal damage had been done. Four days later the much loved man passed away.

As it always does, remnants of war claimed yet another, in Thomas Ballinger Moore!

Plaque dedicated 2002 in Vernon, Alabama.

New Phenomenon?

The car turned completely over and landed in middle of the creek.

It seems each week I pick up the latest copy of, The Lamar Democrat, the front page has a photo of either a wrecked car or truck, or one stuck in a ditch. Is this phenomenon something new to Lamar County? I did a bit of research uncovering the following article from a December 14, 1927 issue of the newspaper. Perhaps someone in Vernon still remembers this event?


Car Overturns into Yellow Creek

“It was nothing less than a miracle!”

This was the genera icencus of opinion of those who visited the scene of the wrecked Ford car, which left the bridge and plunged into Yellow Creek at the Turner Water Mill just east of Vernon, on the Vernon-Fayette Road, Saturday night, carrying with it three passengers, a young lady and two men, who escaped with no injury except a ducking in the icy waters of Yellow Creek.

According to a statement of Mr. Knight, of Guin, owner of the wrecked car, he was driving at about twenty-five miles an hour and when he struck the bridge, which is in a bad condition, he lost control. The car turned completely over and landed in middle of the creek.

Assistance was secured and with the aid of W.L. Turner’s tractor the car was removed from the creek Saturday night.


Judging by this article it appears people have been wrecking vehicles in Lamar County since day one. The two things puzzling me most about this story are,

“Exactly who took a ducking and what’s a genera icencus?”

Hey, I don’t make this stuff up!